Decision-Making in an Imperfect World

In response to a growing number of employers complaining that many MBA graduates lack crucial decision-making skills, Dean R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia Business School has created a new twist on the classic teaching format known as the case study. Invented by Harvard Business School nearly a century ago, most B-schools use this device to some extent, which relies on a narrative arc, protagonist and clear story line to illustrate typical scenarios one might encounter in the business world.

According to MBA Toolbox, however, this model can deprive students of an authentic learning experience because the teacher is too much of a star and the students are too passive. As a result, the students fail to develop important skills that they need for success in their business careers. Hubbard’s answer has been to create what he calls “decision briefs”, which offer less information and don’t present a solution until students have hashed out the issues on their own. “We want our students to be used to dealing with incomplete data,” Hubbard says. “They should be able to make decisions out of uncertainty.”

The BusinessWeek story “The Case Against Case Studies” reports that even Michael J. Roberts, executive director of the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard and author of more than 100 HBS case studies, acknowledges the potential benefits of Hubbard’s approach, which was introduced to Columbia students last fall. “Framing problems and finding the data to analyze those problems is a skill that MBAs need and that the classic case doesn’t fully exploit,” Roberts says. Endorsements of this kind, as well as a hearty thumbs-up from companies, will spur more business schools to include Columbia’s decision briefs in their curriculums. Hubbard, at least initially, doesn’t plan to sell the decision briefs but to use them to tap into faculty research.

How do students feel about the use of decision briefs over case studies? On the CBS Public Offering blog, one poster prefers decision briefs hands-down, saying “Unlike the case study method, decision briefs seem like a way to put the students in the drivers seat as opposed to giving them a retrospective view on scenarios. Hence it helps the students build on another quality (besides good decision making) all successful managers should possess – resourcefulness.”

According to Columbia professor Rita Gunther McGrath’s blog, “the move away from cases in the MBA program actually mirrors what we’ve been doing in Executive Education programs for years. We find that executives have so much interesting and rich context that they bring into the classroom that cases aren’t that useful (besides who wants to wade through 30 or 40 pages of a lengthy case?). We tend to use a lot of short case-ettes, actual stories from the company, and even clips from newspapers and magazines to get the discussion started. Not only is it more interesting for the participants, it does force the frameworks and tools you use to be very real-world.”

The first field test for the new teaching technique will be this summer, when the MBAs head out to their internships as, one hopes, more independent thinkers.


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